Several months ago Thom Rainier reported that the majority of pastors his company works with were in the process of leaving their churches. Twenty twenty had proven a gauntlet too tricky to run for too many.
As of today, I know of 4 pastors – just in my immediate orbit – currently in painful situations with their congregations/leadership that will almost certainly lead to a parting of ways. And quite frankly should.
One pastor can no longer handle the gas-lighting and manipulation by a supervisor (in)famously hard on their supervisees and lay leaders.
One church believes their pastor’s preaching on racial injustice is a sign that she needs inpatient mental health care.
One church believes their pastor is keeping them from worshiping so they can “stay on vacation” – that’s right, a pandemic vacation.
And finally, a church that views their pastors’ use of expansive God-language as a tell that they’re apart of a vast globalist conspiracy.
I’ve only been in ordained ministry for 8 years, so take this for what it’s worth, but I’ve personally never known so many churches in crisis, and pastors with them, all at the same time. These pastors are suffering – from family stress, their churches’ financial shortfalls, the pandemic, and divisions, deep and wide, in our country. They are suffering as they helplessly witness the communities they love fracture under the weight of this cultural moment. They are suffering as people who they hoped loved them back are now focusing all their anger on them – if you can’t take it out on your pastor, then who can you take it out on?
These pastors, and countless others around the country, are getting struggling to make it through another day. Now on the other side of that kind of struggle, I want to say something to these pastors and to their church and its leaders.
Churches & Leaders
This isn’t going to end how you think. I know you’ve convinced yourself that your BLM-sign-having, pandemic-vacation-loving pastor is THE problem that needs to be fixed right now, but let’s walk through this. Someone(s) is/are going to be pissed you hurt a pastor they love. They’re going to stop pledging and/or leave all together, and they’re going to tell their friends in town why. PCUSA churches: depending on the level of your enacted hooliganism, you might get a visit from your friendly COM, or the always welcome Administrative Commission. You’ll have pulpit supply for a while, and an interim for a year or two, so make sure getting rid of the one you have is worth waiting a minimum of two years for the pastor of your dreams.
But that’s not even the worst part of it.
When you find Dream Pastor in 2023-2024, they’re gonna’ call everyone on your reference list. They’re also gonna’ call a lot of people who aren’t on that list to get the unfiltered down low on the health of your church. If they’re smart and brave, they’re also going to call your previous pastor because denominations and conferences are small and getting smaller. We don’t even need Kevin Bacon’s 6 degrees to find each other – usually just 2 or 3. Let’s assume your former pastor is honest with them (unfortunately, not a given) do you wanna’ guess what’s going to happen when Dream Pastor hears about the hurt the previous pastor AND THEIR FAMILY felt for the last 6 months they were there? Just be sure you have a good long list of candidates, and that all of this is worth it.
This sucks. I’m really sorry. I have serious doubts this is actually about you. There’s a lot of general angst out there being poured out on you. And if I’m honest, I have suspicions that many of you – at least those of you of the “it’s sinful to put a child in a cage” persuasion – are being ridden out on the rails because of what happened on Nov. 3rd. If it would have turned out differently, your church might still tolerate your snowflake sermons about “compassion” and “loving your neighbor” (Thanks, Biden!). But, it didn’t, and many in our pews are disappointed and mad about that.
So, let me officially welcome you to the dark forest. It’s the place pastors go – whether they white knuckle it to the next call, resign, are terminated, or are resig-nated – when the bonds of community (that you’ve worked to build) are broken. Your family may join you here. Your spouse is about to lose a big social network. Your kids are about to lose friends, Sunday School teachers, and youth group leaders, having done nothing to deserve it. There’s a LOT of shared hurt in the dark forest.
Be sure you have something 120 proof or higher in the cabinets – some to drink, but most of it to disinfect the wounds inflicted by the things lurking in the dark forest. It’s so dark in here, you can’t even see your hand in front of your face sometimes, and things are hunting you and will pounce on you out of nowhere – things like depression, shame and anxiety. But you’re also going to bump into some things that will hurt you – like facebook posts about truth and kindness by the people smearing your character around town; a well-meaning congregant who makes your pain about their hurt; or a person who had the power to stop this but wouldn’t at the grocery store. Those bump-ins are just as wounding as the things stalking you, so remember to keep those wounds clean.
Do not romanticize this. It’s not “the wilderness.” It’s not a place to learn. It’s a place to survive. For some, that means not letting your spirit die. For others, it will mean, dragging yourself out of bed every day and and make the decision to continue living. Counseling and medication are going to help, but the days are long in the dark forest.
Just hang on because one day you’re going to bump into something that is not there to harm you. You’re gonna realize not everything hurts; some things are just there. Then you’re gonna bump into something, or someone, that intends good for you – a congregant who’s fighting for you, a friend who’s there to support you, or even one who visualizes herself as a cross between Glenda and Tinkerbell and will come find you in the dark forest when the darkness gets too thick. You’re gonna’ learn that there are LOTS of pastors in here. Y’all talk; it helps.
You’re not alone, and you will get out. And I don’t say that as someone who who’s on the other side of the tree line. I’m right in here with you, stumbling, bumping into things that mean me harm, but also having encountered too many people committed to helping me find my way out to believe it’ll always be this dark or that I’ll be stuck here forever. It has taken me several months to get to this place, and I’m basically just wandering in circles, but I’ve made the decision to move, and that will eventually get me out.
For those of you who are going to push through to your next call, I don’t have much advice for you. I resigned because the church’s leaders chose to prioritize criticizing me over caring for its staff and members. There really wasn’t much of a choice to make, and then the church decided not to honor my six week notice, so it was over – just like that – for me.
Those of you on your way out the door, whether by choice or not, I need to tell you that this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I miss my congregants and staff deeply. I miss the good and exciting work we were doing. I regret over-trusting a broken system for justice. That’s the truth.
But so is this: once you remove a source of toxicity from your life, a whole lot of new life opens up before you. I’m more present with my children. I’m a better spouse. I’m a better friend. I’m a better member of my community. And none of that’s because I have more time on my hands, though I do. It’s because I can see straight without all that toxic goop covering my eyes. I can think straight without toxic fumes clouding my thoughts. So, I am grieving…and yet grateful. My grief has not changed too much, but my gratitude to be away from the toxicity continues to grow.
So, if you’re being accused of being a part of a globalist conspiracy, or your church is trying to commit you because you believe the black lives matter, or your supervisor treats you like something stuck on the bottom of their shoe, and you just can’t do it anymore, know that there are hard days ahead, but also better ones.
The idea of the dark forest came to me from a Cixin Liu novel entitled…The Dark Forest. I know, I didn’t have to work too hard for that one. It’s a really good one, especially if you’re a dork.
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